Labour ‘has failed to tackle inequality’

Nine years of a Labour government have failed to tackle the “grotesque” inequalities which scar British society, Liberal Democrat MPs have warned.

A succession of senior party figures today condemned the government’s record on social exclusion, warning that its policies on health, education, transport and poverty have failed to make their mark.

“It’s amazing that after nine years of a Labour government, inequality remains – if anything – a worsening problem,” said trade and industry spokesman Ed Davey.

He was launching a new policy document at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton, which calls for the party to commit to a “freer, fairer and greener Britain” and puts inequality at the heart of everything it does.

Mr Davey questioned what Labour had done to improve fairness, asking: “The council tax? The pension fiasco? The saga of people repaying thousands in tax credits?

“No wonder the poorest 20 per cent pay a higher share of their income in tax than the richest 20 per cent. No wonder Gordon Brown’s UK remains the most unequal country in the EU.”

However, a Cabinet Office spokesman pointed to the government’s new social exclusion strategy launched last week, which outlines plans to intervene earlier in disadvantaged families and improve cooperation between social services.

The strategy also notes that since Labour came to power, 800,000 children and one million pensioners have been lifted out of poverty, there have been annual increases in life expectancy and school standards, and most people have seen their income rise.

Today Lib Dem leader Menzies Campbell used a visit to the Royal Sussex county hospital to highlight the continuing problems of health inequality, which means infant mortality and rates of mental illness are still highest among the poor.

“It is appalling that despite record levels of economic growth the poorest are being left behind,” he said, and announced the creation of a working group under Liz Barker to look into practical proposals to reduce health inequalities.

Earlier, education spokeswoman Sarah Teather warned that Tony Blair had failed to deliver on his 1997 pledge that ‘education, education, education’ would be his three top priorities.

“We live in a wealthy country but the richest of prosperity and hope are not open to all. Over 11 million people still live in poverty, and if you are born into a poor family in this country you will probably die in one,” she said.

And environment spokesman Chris Huhne warned that inequality in rural areas was accelerating, with one fifth of the rural population now living in poverty, and said neither Labour nor the Conservatives had anything to offer to tackle the problem.

“Under the Conservatives, social housing was sold off, post offices closed and public services allowed to crumble.But Labour have no real sympathy with the countryside – it is an urban party with urban concerns,” he claimed.

A motion put to conference this afternoon called for more support for rural shops through a small shops protection bill, for the Lib Dems to oppose the ‘bed tax’ mooted in the Lyons review of local government and for a review of broadband in remote areas.